All the stories he could tell…

Hank Williams Sr

“Stared at that guitar/At that museum in Tennessee/Nameplate on the glass/Brought back twenty melodies”

A musical pilgrimage. That’s what I called my trip to Luchenbach, Texas nine years ago.

Today I still pine for seeing Sun Studios in Memphis, Abbey Road, LaGrange and for standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona. I’ve a road-tripped to see U2, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Jimmy Buffet, Bob Dylan, Robert Earl Keen, Willie Nelson and The Rolling Stones. I’ve stood in the presence of Merle Haggard and a host of country stars because I was country when country wasn’t cool. One evening I walked around downtown Athens and heard the haunting melodies of REM float over the town from a concert at Legion Field. Once upon a time I even took my mama with me to see Hank Williams Junior. And I’ve listened to Americana under the stars at Luchenbach.

art in hall of fame

A journey isn’t just a beginning and an end. The in-between is crucial.

This latest adventure—to check The Rolling Stones off Nolan’s bucket list—started in the Upstate of South Carolina and led us all the way to The Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  But a journey isn’t just a beginning and an end.  The in-between is crucial.

This epic road trip to see The Stones was also a musical pilgrimage, with the principal detour being a visit to Nashville, two nights spent under Todd Snider’s East Nashville skyline, nameless musicians in honky tonk bars and a visit to The Country Music Hall of Fame. Add a quick trip to Bass Pro Shops and it’s staggering what you can cram into two days.

The essence of Nashville is to be found downtown on Broadway. Honky tonks with bad bar food and good cover musicians who don’t stand a chance of making it are interspersed with boot and hat stores and retro clothing boutiques. Every fifty yards or so there is a street musician busking for bucks, everything from one-man bands to traveler kids to Johnny Cash lookalikes to drum acts.

Johnny Cash's black suit

“Do you wonder why I always dress in black?/Why I never wear bright colors on my back?”

Up the street The Country Music Hall of Fame was packed on a Thursday morning. Curiously we arrived at the same time as a large group of excited but well-behaved black children. I happened to stand before Dwight Yoakum’s nudie suit with them and listened to their teacher point out details of the costume.

“See these pockets?” She said, gesturing to upper chest pockets. “They are called smile pockets because they turn up at the corner.”

Darn. Learn something new every day, I thought.

The children sat on the floor and filled out worksheets.

“This is, well, I’ll let you read it. Can you write down his name?”

* * *

art at Country Music Hall of Fame

“If Hank Williams was alive today/I can tell you where he wouldn’t be/Hanging around that Hall of Fame/In Nashville, Tennessee.”   Marshall Chapman, “A Thank You Note” from the album Jaded Virgin

Greasy and Nolan blew through it and I felt like I did as well. There is simply too much too see in one quick visit. Season passes and frequent trips are what it would take to absorb this museum.

Besides Dwight Yoakum, I worshiped at a few displays: Hank Williams’ guitar, Mother Maybelle’s guitar, one of many man-in-black Johnny Cash suits, Gram Parsons’ pills-and-cannabis nudie suit, Elvis Pressley’s Cadillac, Earl Scruggs’ banjo, the cornfield set of the television show Hee Haw. A wall of portraits of country music’s power couples: Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash and June Carter, George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Web Pierce’s nudie Cadillac, obscene with tooled saddle leather and steer horns on the front. Little Jimmy Dickens’ display of tiny boots and lime green nudie suit. George Strait’s everyday Western shirt and Wranglers. Actual blue suede shoes.

Bob Dylan, Johnny Cast and the Nashville Cats

“Rock and country, they flow back and forth between each other.”

The current exhibit of note is Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats. I’d known that Johnny and Bob were friends. This huge exhibit was a testament to their sense of awe at each other and to the behind-the-scenes individuals that make Nashville tick. Session musicians and sound engineers.

nudie suit

Cannabis-and-pills nudie suit worn by Gram Parsons

It’s also an affirmation of the fact that music is plastic and fluid. Rock and country, they flow back and forth between each other. To me this is a huge paradox: I grew up thinking that you either liked country or rock. Not both. And this couldn’t be further from the truth. To hearken back to my biologist’s training, country and rock are mutualists, locked in a symbiotic relationship.

Right before the museum’s inevitable exit-into-the- gift-shop is the Rotunda. My glimmer twins walked right past it and sat down in the lobby to wait for me.

Whispering, a docent gestured, her voice reverent, “This is the actual hall of fame.”

A small fountain and wishing well were just inside the entryway, full of coins. The rotunda was magic. Holy. Quiet. I circled clockwise, reading the brass plate of each member. I was reminded of my emotional overload experiences at The Alamo and The Astronaut Memorial at Cape Canaveral. There were souls there with me. Souls.

* * *

 

Nashville Tennesse honky tonk

Nolan takes in Nashville from a honky tonk

We walked from the Hall of Fame to Broadway, where we stood on the corner and

Nameless musician in Nashville

“This city is slam full of broken dreams.”

Nolan eenie-meenie-minee-moed over where to eat. He selected a three-tiered honky tonk that boasted a different band on each level. We ascended to the third floor and the view was amazing. A trio of musicians played cover songs that reiterated the flux between country and rock ‘n roll.

“This is incredibly sad,” I said, still feeling all those souls, though this time I was thinking of the non-famous ones.

“What?” said Nolan.

“This city is slam full of broken dreams.”

One only had to look to the stage before us: three men holding guitars and two girlfriends making up the audience.

I put a twenty in their tip bucket as we left, leaned over and whispered conspiratorially to them, “We’re on our way to Indianapolis to see The Rolling Stones.”

“Aw, man, you’ll love ‘em. I saw them a couple of weeks ago when they were here and they were awesome.”

Thank you, sir, I thought.  In case nobody ever tells you, you are, too.

A musician huddles in a doorway in Nashville

“With a million dollar spirit/And an old flattop guitar/
They drive to town with all they own/In a hundred dollar car.”  ~Thom Schulyer; performed by Lacy J. Dalton.

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Worth resharing–Wofford College Women (before we were cool)

Main Building

Old Main, Wofford campus.

Wofford College.  All you Yankees, heathen and sportscasters need to learn to pronounce it  correctly.  It’s WAWH-ferd.  Not Woof-ferd.

I matriculated there in the fall of 1977 and graduated in May of 1981, having been recruited by my father’s cousin-by-marriage, Dr. Elton Hendricks, then Director of Admissions. Elton is a physicist and a Methodist minister and he went on to a long career as president of Methodist University.

Wofford had been a men’s school since its inception in 1854.  The first class of women living on campus entered in the fall of 1976, so I was in an early wave of the invasion of the women.  To look at the college now you would never know that it was not always coeducational.

We XX’s were a true minority; truthfully, not welcomed by everyone.  That first week all fell uncomfortably silent when “we” walked into the dining hall. You cringed inwardly while walking proudly.  Yes, you were afraid the frat boys and jocks would begin to hiss and boo.  And yes, fraternities openly discouraged brothers and pledges from dating Wofford women.

Thankfully it didn’t take long before I felt like I was one of the guys.  Yes, I was a member of the Association of Wofford Women.  We really didn’t, you know, do anything.  It seemed the association was mostly for show.  We existed.  We joined.  ‘Cause we could.  Solidarity and all.

Spartanburg General Nursing School photo

Shirley Senn’s nursing school photo

My son is a sophomore at the University of South Carolina.  He had looked at Wofford as early as between his freshman and sophomore year of high school.  He knew it wasn’t for him, but we filled out an application to Wofford and an ivy-league school more or less for grins (but never hit the final “submit” button to either school).  He also considered Presbyterian College, where he would have been a legacy to his grandfather, Jack P. Holmes.

Little did he know that if he had chosen Wofford, he would have been a legacy to me and to his maternal grandmother Shirley Senn Holmes.

Yes, Shirley and her sister Marietta “Mary” Senn Harper attended classes on campus at Wofford during their years as R.N. students at Spartanburg General Hospital’s School of Nursing.

Spartanburg General School of Nursing photo

Mary Senn’s nursing school photo

This is not one of my witty, insightful or funny blogs.  It is pure history for my son’s benefit and that of my Holmes and Harper cousins who might not know that Shirley and Mary attended classes at Wofford way before it was cool to do so.

I’m re-sharing Wofford historian Phillip Stone’s blog From the Archives for their benefit.  It deals with women at Wofford before women really “arrived.”  Click on the link and it will open in a new window, so don’t freak.

The Women Before There Were Women

Also, I’ll tell you that I’ve recently been interviewed for an article in Wofford Today magazine about the early years of co-eds at Wofford.  I’ll let you know when it comes out.

Meanwhile intaminatus fulget honoribus.  I think.

Wofford College logo

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Weeping for South Carolina…

hands11We have much to learn, my friend. So much to learn.

Yesterday I was crushed when I woke up to the news of the senseless slaughter of a family of faith attending a Bible study and prayer service in Emanuel AME Church in my beloved state of South Carolina. Shot down in cold blood by an evil killer who came into their midst during worship, they laid down their lives in a place that should be holy.

I’ve been reeling with grief. Tears, then prayer, then more tears and more prayer. These people are my brothers and sisters in Christ. This is my state. My religion. This is deeply personal to me.

As a South Carolinian, a Christian and especially as the mother of a 20 year old male who loves guns, I am numb.

Yes, my son loves guns. Taking his example from me—the hunter, and my father before me, a hunter and a military rifleman—he picked up shooting at an early age. He is fluent in shotgun and handgun and archery. Sporting clays dominated his middle school and high school extracurriculars. At the final tournament of his high school shooting career, he broke 98 out of 100 tiny flying clay targets to own the highest score in his division and claim a Harry Hampton Wildlife Fund Scholarship.

This killer lived in the Greater Columbia metro area. My son attends the university there, where this murderer scoped out the mall. My son frequents that mall, and I am no stranger to it. He was apprehended in Shelby, North Carolina. Shelby is less than two hours from here and one of my cousins lives there.

Like I said, this is personal to me.

So I have to ask myself, what goes so very wrong in a person to make him go into a movie theater, an elementary school, a mall, a college campus, a highway overpass or a church and begin mowing down random strangers?

You can say what you want about nature vs. nurture. I know nothing of this young man’s upbringing, so anything I say about his family life is only conjecture. But as a person who knows something of genetics and a tidbit or two about culture and families and mental disturbances, I am going out on a limb and say: Acts like this take “a perfect storm” of things gone horribly awry to produce such a killer.

I think it is a yank on the handle of a slot machine with the slots lining up: Demon. Demon. Demon. A rare combination of mental illness and/or drugs and/or deficient moral upbringing and/or heritable mental illness and/or acquired mental illness and/or learned behavior/learned hatred and/or the effect of relatively harmless recreational drugs on the developing brain.

Did you notice I said mental illness a lot?

Note to parents: if your child is a testosterone-fueled post-adolescent who is severely introverted, cannot make eye contact, stays in his room all day playing violent video games, doesn’t have any friends or interact with others, has a weird haircut and vacant soulless stare and may have a substance abuse problem, please, PLEASE don’t give him a gun. Ever.

This is becoming a really recognizable asocial personality type. I am not a psychologist.

How blind do you have to be to miss this?

At any rate, I have to look at my son to reassure myself. Though at times he does everything in his power to provoke me, he is socially involved, does well in school, makes eye contact and interacts well with people of different ages, classes and social backgrounds. He attends church regularly and is engaged in what goes on in the community, thanks be to God. I can take credit for none of this normalcy. It is goodness intrinsic in him.

 *  *  *

I cannot address this tragedy without addressing the elephant in the room, though I wish it was not a factor. Race.

It is my belief that even without his obvious racism and hatred, this young man was so abnormal that he would have found some excuse to kill someone someway somehow for something. Disturbed individual that he was, he was bound to kill a lot of somebodies. But it sticks in my craw that he chose to make it about black and white. Because that seems to be a very real problem in the USA.

I feel that I grew up during an exciting time in race relations. It was right after the peak of the civil rights movement. Our cultures were coming together and liking it, in part thanks to newly opened minds, music and fashion and sports. We looked at them and said to ourselves, I really like what she’s wearing or it’s got a great beat and I love that song! We worked together on our sports teams, the student council, the yearbook and the newspaper staff. I thought we had seen the last of racism in 1977. That’s almost 40 years ago.  I was woefully wrong.

What the heck happened? Why does racism still rear its incredibly ugly head? And what can we do to stop it?

*  *  *

As I said, this mass shooting is personal to me. Immensely personal. So I am making a conscious effort to look beyond the soulless dead eyes of this boy killer du jour and into the sparkling warm eyes and lives of these beautiful victims. I am making an effort to memorize the faces and the names of each of these people and memorialize them in my heart. To learn a tidbit or two about each of them. To remember them and their loved ones—individually—in my prayers.

Here, again, are their names. They are important people. Remember them always:

Reverend Clementa Pinckney, 41
Reverend Sharonda Singleton, 45
Myra Thompson, 49
Tywanza Sanders, 26
Ethel Lee Lance, 70
Cynthia Heard, 54
Reverend Daniel Simmons, Sr., 74
Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49
Susie Jackson, 87

These fine South Carolinians gave their all in service to their church and they gave it to their Lord and Savior. They are martyrs. Some say they are now saints. In my very mortal voice, I agree.

As a Christian, I have to think to myself: What would Jesus do?

Hmmm.

A few months ago, I learned of a hush-hush initiative to put concealed weapons into some area churches. I was shocked and disillusioned to learn of it. This is what it has come to? Armed men in places of peace, tranquility and reverence? Perhaps these people had foresight. They knew it was coming. In denial, you knew it was, too.

Yes, they are there wearing earbuds and are carrying concealed weapons. They are in constant communications with each other, kind of like the Secret Service of the Lord. WWJD? In these days and times, he might be packing heat.

*  *  *

Grace. It is an ill-defined Christian concept referring to God’s granting a lenience to those who unequivocally do not deserve it. I am right with the concept of grace. Too many times it has been extended to me when I had done nothing to merit it.

Today I witnessed  Christian grace granted by better Christians than me who have just had their hearts cut out and desecrated. Last night I tried to pray for the sonovabitch who did this horrendous act. Try as I might, I could not extend him my grace and forgive him in private prayers.  I tried to pray for his poor, confused family and I could not find it in me to do so. I am mortal. Through my tears, I could not do it.

Yet I see during his arraignment, lo and behold, victims’ families are praying for him and asking our God for forgiveness on his behalf.

I am learning something. In this simple act of Christian forgiveness and grace, God is working in our evil, evil world.

 

Drawing by a girl named Madeline memorializes those slain at Mother Emanuel Church

Drawing by a girl named Madeline, aged 7,  memorializes those slain at Mother Emanuel Church

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Faith in Humanity: A Birthday Miracle

Today was one of those things we women of a certain age tiptoe around. My birthday. It does usually feel like a special day, but today was not off to such a good start.

For one thing, it is tough to have a birthday and not really think hard about the person who gave birth to me. And today is my first birthday without my mother. I can’t say how badly I wanted to call her, to put my arms around her and to breathe her in.

Long story short, I decided to run by my office and check a patient and then scoot on up the road to the Target in Simpsonville. I don’t know why, but I thought maybe looking at the Christmas stuff might put me in a more cheery mood. It turned out I bought only groceries and household items. Lord knows I have enough junk and clutter in the house, so not buying more…stuff…was a good move on my part.

Target is right at 30 miles from my home. I made it back shortly after my menfolk got home from church. It had the earmarks of being a long and possibly productive afternoon.

Until… I immediately discovered my purse and my cell phone were missing.

Let’s just say that my pickup truck is cluttered. Very, very cluttered. After a wild search aided by the guys, I began to realize I was not going to unearth my purse or my phone. Now Target was starting to feel 400 miles away instead of 60 miles round-trip.

Wracking my brain, I went to my computer and typed “find lost iPhone” into the search bar. Quickly I was on the Cloud searching for my phone. A little map with a green dot showed me my phone was at the intersection of Harrison Bridge Road and Fairview Road in Simpsonville. The TAR-zhaaay. I learned that I could immediately enforce a pass code on my phone and “lock” the screen. Anyone who found it would get a warning that the phone was lost and be asked to call my husband’s cell.

Still, I had worries. The purse contained my driver’s license, insurance cards, checkbook, a good sized handful of credit cards and a hundred dollars cash money.

There was nothing to do but drive back up there, hoping against hope that my purse had not been ransacked.  A student of deep breathing meditative techniques, I gulped huge breaths and forced my neck and shoulders to relax. I would get through this.

At the Target, I quickly saw that the shopping cart return bay had not been emptied but the cart I had used was devoid of my purse. I walked to the service desk, and sighed with relief when I immediately overheard the clerks discussing the “purse that was turned in.”

I have memorized many of my card numbers and expected to have to give away national security secrets to get my purse back but the ladies just needed a physical description of the purse, my name and a signature.

She smiled when she handed it to me.

“Everything’s in there,” she said. “A guest turned it in.”

I don’t doubt for a minute that someone, maybe that very Target employee had looked through my purse enough to know there were cards, a nice phone and a wad of cash in there.

The way she said, “Everything’s in there,” I knew that she knew there was cash. And I knew nobody had touched it. I didn’t even open the pockets and check until I was home.

It was a birthday miracle, one to restore one’s faith in humanity.  My mother would have smiled and pointed out that even at my (ahem) advanced age, there are still things I can learn from this world and good people in it as well.

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The Purity of Football

Clemson Tigers and USC Gamecocks flag

A house divided–Clemson and Carolina flag

Allow me to wax poetic about football.

In her later years, my mother eschewed football in favor of baseball. “It’s just so…brutal…violent,” she said.

Many writers before me have observed that football is a ritual reenactment of the primal clashes of mankind.  There are broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted men fighting on the field and hourglass-shaped women on the sidelines cheering them on.  Mama was onto something. Nowadays, analysts have turned their thoughts to the consequences of the sport’s violence–brain damage, memory loss, dementia, neuromuscular disorders, orthopedic injury–and the failure of the industry to support players who have passed their use-by date.

People get all that, but people watch football games because they are fun to watch.  There is a culture of football in the US; people schedule their lives around it.  Home game?  Whee!  Excuse to let down your hair, paint up your face in team colors and escape your humdrum life.  Party on!  Tailgate cities and healthy economic support of the poultry industry ensue.  The very existence of fried chicken, chips and dip and beer are justified.

Beat Texas A&M tee shirt

A newly-minted University of South Carolina Gamecock

College football, its rituals and rivalries are a religion in the South.  My son went off to college last week.  Yes, he attended high school football games, in a sort-of lukewarm way.  He has never shown a lot of interest in football of any kind.  Now all of a sudden, he is a student at the University of South Carolina and, GO COCKS!

Me, I cannot watch football at a crowded party, in a bar full of strangers or on a flat screen under a canopy at your tailgate.  The rumble of voices, the distraction of folk coming and going, the food and drink–for me these things all take away from the purity of football.  I have to concentrate, gird up my loins and (sort of) play.  I watch to see the plays unfold and follow the announcers as they dissect the replay.  I find it difficult to give the game my full attention when there are more than a couple of people in the room.  It is as though I get in a zen state where the only things in existence are me…and the football game itself.

Sigh.

This week marks the opening of college football season 2014.  I graduated from the University of Georgia during the Hershel Walker years, but I have always considered myself a Clemson sympathizer.

Lest you think I’m preaching from the sidelines, I worked as a clerk in the Wofford College Athletic Department.  I personally assembled the playbook for the Wofford Terriers with whom the ClemsonTigers opened their 11-0 national championship season.  I’ve also attended some mighty fine contests on the gridiron, games such as Clemson v UGA back in the early 80’s when these teams won back-to-back national championships, and I’ve felt the earth shake in Death Valley at Clemson-Carolina games.  I’ve heard the Dawgs woof between the hedges and stood outside the coliseum in the ticket line. Heck, I separated my left shoulder playing intramural flag football at UGA.  I’ve even been to the Esso Club on game day.

How I prioritize college football

How I prioritize college football

So I self-identify as a Clemson fan though I don’t wear their colors.  I pull for Clemson even when they play my almer mater.  But unlike many Clemson fans, I don’t hate the University of South Carolina.  As a matter of fact, I yell for them like crazy when they play anyone other than the Tigers.

It gets a little more complicated when the two South Carolina powerhouses lock horns.  Long ago, I would have remained true to the Tigers.  Perhaps I’ve mellowed out over the years, or maybe it’s the respect the old ball coach has brought to Gamecock football, for now I pull for whichever team stands to gain the most in the polls.

There, I’ve said it and it feels good, like I’ve emerged from some kind of closet.

This week, South Carolina opens with Texas A&M at home and Clemson travels a few miles down the road to clash with the mighty Dawgs in Athens, Georgia.  Have a happy–and safe–football season.  Don’t  punch some guy in the parking lot of a bar like one of my friends did one time.  Travel safely, party responsibly and enjoy.

Don’t mind me.  I’ll be watching in air-conditioned comfort, solo, in the lotus position with my head in the game.

 

Clemson v UGA

Go Tigers!

 

 

 

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Cue the banjos if you will…

 “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” 

                                                           Norman Maclean

Enoree river up and muddy

Nolan in the Enoree River when she's up and muddy.

The last time I floated this river was about 27 years ago, when I was lithe and strong and filled with enthusiasm.  These days I am troubled by bad feet, hot flashes, night sweats and anxiety.  I hide myself behind hipster glasses, voluminous clothes and work.  I don’t go out—even to the grocery store—unless it is totally necessary or unless my destination is obscure or anonymous.  I can handle walking around downtown Beaufort.  The local Walmart terrifies me.

So I don’t know what possessed me to float the river yesterday.  Perhaps it was a sense of urgency that the lad will be going off to college in less than two months.  And perhaps it was shame that my husband bought two kayaks four years ago and we have never taken them on the water.  Then there was the nagging knowledge that without something to do, I would sit on my bed all day and read or peck around on my iPad.

The plan was thrown out hastily before the boy scooted out the door to church, “Hey, want to take the kayaks down the Enoree River today?”

Sure, why not? Nolan with kayaks

“I want the green one.” Nolan picks his kayak in 2010, not knowing he wouldn’t travel in it until 2014.

In this household, I am never exactly sure whether or not a plan is going to come together until it is actually being executed.  So I puttered around the kitchen with less than 50-50 odds of the kayaking outing becoming a reality.

When it became imminent that I was going to get in the truck and go float the river, I hastily tossed some almost-random things into a gallon Ziploc bag—K-Bar knife, bug spray, Kleenex, a half a 16 oz bottle of drinking water, a floating solar powered lantern, a couple of individual serving packs of trail mix and because no one should ever leave home without enough bags, I threw in extra Ziplocs.  You might need a few things in an emergency, and only two weeks ago there had been a major search on our benign little river for two boys lost on a cheap raft.

We, it turned out, were so poorly prepared for this maiden voyage that I had to turn around and drive back home to get our PFDs.

Joey canoeing

Portrait of Joey canoeing the Okefenokee swamp near Folkston, Georgia circa 1982. Joey used to be my Enoree canoeing partner.

The Enoree is a silty brown river, medium-sized, and in most places sluggish.  We launched down a vertical bank that was maybe 15 feet high, quite a challenge for this old fat woman.  Immediately we ran into a mess of downed trees low across the water that would become strainers after a hard rain.  If I was afraid of spiders, I would have not made it past the first 100 yards.

But the river opened up and I began to point out landmarks along the stretch south from Lanford Station towards the Highway 49 bridge, including a famous fishing hole on the right bank marked by a big rock.  My daddy had loved to fish this place.

Beaverdam Creek near Lanford Station

This may be my lifer bluegill. 1961 with my Daddy.

My son’s experience with rivers had always been high adventure up until now.  We’ve done the Nantahala several times.  The Black River in Georgetown county.  The National Outdoor Whitewater Center in Charlotte, which is intense.  The salt marshes at Murrell’s Inlet.  The Green River, nestled deep in a gorge in North Carolina.  And oh, yes, the Chattooga when he was fourteen.  I almost drowned, though from a simple fluke and not for being caught in something as dramatic as a hydraulic.  The experience was such that I have never wanted to go back.

I wanted Nolan to know there was virtue in this quiet river.

“Listen,” I said.

Him:  “What?”  Wondering, I guess, what bird song or frog call I was about to point out to him.

Me, “Nothing.  You can’t hear anything.  No traffic, no dogs barking, no chainsaws or heavy equipment.  Nothing.”

Pause.

“You’ve been on a few rivers, Nolan.  All crowded with other boats and rafts.  How does it feel to have the river all to yourself?”

“My daddy always says if there are not cars in the parking lot of a restaurant, it’s because the food sucks,” he said.

Learning to Kayak

Nolan casts from my kayak in 2009.

A good ways before the Highway 49 bridge, he began to ask the cliché child’s question.  Are we there yet?  I waved towards the left bank, the Spartanburg County side.  The land there is one of my brother Joey’s primo spots for birding and herping.

“There’s Joey’s river pasture.  It’s Sunday afternoon.  Maybe he is over there herping.” I said, joking.

We got a little silly and started hollering.  “Joey!  Joey!  Are you over there?”  We even went so far as phoning Joey but our connection was bad.

Then I got occupied with spotting softshell turtles and we rounded a bend in the river and the bridge came into view.

“Look, Mama!” Nolan said, pointing at the bridge,  “There goes Joey!  In his Buick!”

It couldn’t be, could it?  We phoned Joey again and this time the call went through.  He verified that he had indeed driven his Buick across the bridge seconds before.

How often, I wonder, do lives intersect in this manner?  What are the odds that we would be floating kayaks under the bridge just as my brother was driving over it?  How many cars cross that bridge on any given day?  Hundreds.  How many kayaks go under it?  Very few.  The fact that our paths crossed, we recognized it and we were able to communicate with each other instantly is mind-numbing.

 

The River of Muscadines

Old bridge abutments on the Enoree River near Musgrove Mill

Below the Highway 49 bridge is the set of rocky rapids that are sometimes fun.  Not on this excursion.  The water was low.  We spent more time pushing off rocks and dragging our kayaks as we did surging over tiny sections of whitewater.  Our new kayak’s seats were horrible, with zero back support.  If you set your feet against the footrests and tried to push off the bottom with your paddle, there was not enough seat for you to do anything but flop backwards onto nothingness.  Every muscle in my body screamed in protest.  And let me tell you this—if a fat woman wearing a life jacket falls out of the kayak onto her back on the rocks, she is more or less stuck there like a box turtle until someone helps her roll over.

Past the rocky stretch, the river returned to its normal taciturn character.  Silent and slow.

Nolan at Sands Beach, Port Royal, SC

Nolan checks out the beach at Port Royal, SC, where we saw my South Carolina "lifer" bald eagle.

We watched the usual species—great blue herons, little green herons, wood ducks, kingfishers and red-tailed hawks.  For excitement, a goldfinch.  We passed sand bars cris-crossed with the tracks of nesting turtles.  We endured a brief stint of traffic noise while floating under I-26, and encountered an isolated rapid that Nolan went into sideways where he rolled his kayak.

He was grouchy, and the trip seemed to be taking far longer than the two hours I thought I remembered.  I was surrounded by water and yet horribly thirsty. Our moods plummeted. I somehow drew ahead of him, as he was not able to get all of the water out of his kayak after his last spill.

I noticed he was missing and turned to face upriver just downstream of a fun-but-tiny rapid.  I was about to paddle upstream looking for him, but at last I saw the movement of his paddle and then his green kayak came into view.  I enjoyed the rhythm of his paddle strokes, my mind a blank, my back temporarily comfortable.

It caught me by surprise, just over his head, circling out over the river.  A large dark bird with an unmistakable blazing white head and tail, flying so easily that it looked…casual.  I threw back my head and laughed, keeping my face towards the sky to watch for a re-run while I waited for Nolan.  I considered that perhaps he fell behind because he was watching this eagle.

He drew even with me and passed me in stony silence.  I turned the boat back downstream and stroked to catch up.

“Did you see it?” I said.Bald eagle

Nothing.

“Nolan.  Did you see it?”

Nothing.

“Nolan!  Did. You. See. It?”

He finally spoke, “What?”

“The eagle,” I said.  “Did you see the eagle?”

He raised his arm and pointed downstream.  “You mean that eagle?”

Sure enough, the bald eagle was perched on the Laurens County side and flew out over the river.  The white of its tail was blinding.  I broke out in cold chills and my eyes began to tear up.

Bald eagles belong to a subgroup of eagles called sea eagles.  They are seldom seen far from really big bodies of water.  In fact, breeding pairs prefer bodies of water greater than 7 miles in circumference.

Sightings away from large lakes, estuaries and oceans are rare.  They eat mainly fish, with a smattering of other birds, rabbits, rodents and possibly bigger mammals such as raccoons and baby deer.  They also eat carrion.

Birders and herpers call new-to-them species “lifers.”  The first Southern hognose snake of your life.  The first prothonotary warbler sighting of your life.  Your first-ever glimpse of a roadrunner or a smooth green snake or spotted turtle.

Joey Holmes with his lifer Heterodon simus

Joey with his lifer Heterodon simus, Southern hognose snake

This Enoree eagle is not my true lifer.

I saw an eagle in the Florida Everglades in 1980. And while I’ve kept my eyes peeled for an eagle in South Carolina for 55 years, I had never seen one until two weeks ago.  Venturing onto Sands Beach in Port Royal, I gazed out over the salt marsh and spied a bald eagle on a man-made nest platform.  Again, Nolan was my sidekick.

The boy has a knack for seeing eagles.  He saw his first at the age of 13, fishing Lake Murray with his dad, and has seen them on two different occasions less than a mile from our house.

Nolan can call the Lake Murray eagle his lifer, and the Enoree River eagle his fifth.  For a birder my age, it is not that simple.  The Everglades eagle, it is my lifer.  The Port Royal bird, my home state lifer.  But this Enoree River eagle is the lifer of my soul.  My stomping grounds.  My Upstate.  My heart’s river.

 

The lad and I finally rounded a bend near the Musgrove Mill Revolutionary War Battlefield to see a cluster of people, adults and small children fishing from a sandbar and teen lovers bobbing in the water.  We passed close to two encampments and were excitedly greeted by country folk—men clamoring towards us, all with the same question, “Hey!  Where’d y’all put in at?”

Cue the banjos if you will.  Open the pages of Norman Maclean if you prefer.

Scraped, bruised, sunburned, tired and thirsty, we pulled our kayaks toward the bank near the concrete pylons of a bygone bridge to the stares of more recreational waders and splashers.  I was so feeble at that point that I washed through the final rapids, dragged behind my empty kayak, too wiped out to curse the slippery rocks upon which I kept falling.  A float I thought I remembered taking two hours ended up being a five hour adventure, and I was shocked when Joey informed me it was ten miles.

Ten miles for an eagle?  Totally worth it.

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Little Orphant Annie…a scarey poem for Halloween!

a vintage halloween imageCome Halloween, I always think of my favorite spooky story from childhood. This time of year, it plays in my head over and over almost like a broken record.  My dad probably recited it so many times that he was sick of it, but I’ve never tired of this poem!

I have taken it from The Best-Loved Poems of James Whitcomb Riley.  Copyrights given in my copy of this book of poems range from 1883 to 1934.  Riley was known as “The Children’s Poet” or “The Hoosier Poet,”  and his poems were popular in the United States until about the mid-twentieth century.

First published on November 5, 1885, this poem was very popular in its day, and spawned the concept of the more familiar Little Orphan Annie that we know from stage, screen and comic strips.  The poem was based on a real person, Mary Alice “Allie” Smith.  Smith was a real girl–an orphan–who lived in the Riley home when he was a child.  It wasn’t until the 1920’s that Johnny Gruelle morphed the character into the rag dolls and other Little Orphan Annie’s of popular culture.

Riley wrote in a rather heavy dialect, which I have taken the liberty of toning down for re-sharing this poem.  In my opinion, the intentional misspellings and contractions are rather hard on a modern reader’s eye.  In his time, he was loved for his onomatopoeia, alliteration and phonetic intensifiers.

Amazingly, there is a public domain audio recording by James Whitcomb Riley himself.  This “phonograph recording” was made in 1912.  It’s 101 years old.  Enjoy!  Little Orphant Annie recited by James Whitcomb Riley

James Whitcomb Riley poem

Little Orphant Annie

by James Whitcomb Riley

(gently abridged for the modern reader by Jacquelyn Holmes Burns)

Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay,

And wash the cups and saucers up, and brush the crumbs away,

And shoo the chickens off the porch, and dust the hearth, and sweep,

And make the fire, and bake the bread and earn her board and keep;

And all us other children, when the supper-things is done,

We set around the kitchen fire and has the most-est fun

A-listening to the witch-tales that Annie tells about,

And the Goblins that gets you

If you

Don’t

Watch

Out!

*  *  *  *  *

"An' the Gobble-uns'll git you ef you don't watch out!"

Once they was a little boy who wouldn’t say his prayers,

So when he went to bed a night, way upstairs,

His mamma heard him holler, and his daddy heard him bawl,

And when they turned the covers down, he wasn’t there at all!

And they seeked him in the rafter-room and cubbyhole and press,

And they seeked him up the chimney-flue, and everywheres, I guess

But all they every found was just his pants around about–

And the Goblins’ll get you

If you

Don’t

Watch

Out!

*  *  *  *  *

Once there was a little boy, who wouldn't say his prayers

"But all they ever found was thist his pants an'round about..."

And one time a little girl would always laugh and grin,

And make fun of everyone–all her blood and kin;

And once, when there was company and old folks was there,

She mocked them and shocked them and said she didn’t care!

And just as she kicked her heels and turned to run and hide,

There was two great big Black Things a-standing by here side,

And they snatched her through the ceiling ‘fore she knowed what she’s about!

And the Goblins’ll get you

If you

Don’t

Watch

Out!

*  *  *  *  *

spooky picture

"An' little Orphant Annie says when the blaze is blue, An' the lamp-wick sputters, an' the wind goes woo-oo!"

And little Orphant Annie says when the blaze is blue,

And the lamp-wick sputters, and the wind goes woo-oo!

And you gear the crickets quit, and the moon is gray,

And the lightning bugs in dew is all squenched away–

You better mind your parents and your teachers fond and dear,

And cherish them that loves you and dry the orphan’s tear,

And help the poor and needy ones that clusters all about,

Or the Goblins’ll get you

If you

Don’t

Watch

Out!

Retro halloween cat with bats

Little Orphant Annie

by James Whitcomb Riley

Little Orphant Annie's come to our house to stay,
An' wash the cups an' saucers up, an' brush the crumbs away,
An' shoo the chickens off the porch, an' dust the hearth, an' sweep,
An' make the fire, an' bake the bread, an' earn her board-an'-keep;
An' all us other childern, when the supper things is done,
We set around the kitchen fire an' has the mostest fun
A-list'nin' to the witch-tales 'at Annie tells about,
An' the Gobble-uns 'at gits you
             Ef you
                Don't
                   Watch
                      Out!

Onc't they was a little boy wouldn't say his prayers,--
So when he went to bed at night, away up stairs,
His Mammy heerd him holler, an' his Daddy heerd him bawl,
An' when they turn't the kivvers down, he wasn't there at all!
An' they seeked him in the rafter-room, an' cubby-hole, an' press,
An' seeked him up the chimbly-flue, an' ever'wheres, I guess;
But all they ever found was thist his pants an' roundabout--
An' the Gobble-uns'll git you
             Ef you
                Don't
                   Watch
                      Out!

An' one time a little girl 'ud allus laugh an' grin,
An' make fun of ever'one, an' all her blood an' kin;
An' onc't, when they was "company," an' ole folks was there,
She mocked 'em an' shocked 'em, an' said she didn't care!
An' thist as she kicked her heels, an' turn't to run an' hide,
They was two great big Black Things a-standin' by her side,
An' they snatched her through the ceilin' 'fore she knowed what she's about!
An' the Gobble-uns'll git you
             Ef you
                Don't
                   Watch
                      Out!

An' little Orphant Annie says when the blaze is blue,
An' the lamp-wick sputters, an' the wind goes woo-oo!
An' you hear the crickets quit, an' the moon is gray,
An' the lightnin'-bugs in dew is all squenched away,--
You better mind yer parents, an' yer teachers fond an' dear,
An' churish them 'at loves you, an' dry the orphant's tear,
An' he'p the pore an' needy ones 'at clusters all about,
Er the Gobble-uns'll git you
             Ef you
                Don't
                   Watch
                      Out!

– See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15240#sthash.wfQEDmno.dpuf

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When the Frost is on the Punkin

childcraft encyclopedia image from James Whitcomb Riley poem

Illustration from Childcraft Encyclopedia

James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916) was known as “The Hoosier Poet” or “The Children’s Poet.”  This wonderful poem about fall in the country reminds me of my childhood, when I would gaze at the pictures and text in my Childcraft Encyclopedia as my father recited this poem to me.  Probably to Daddy’s chagrin, it was over and over and over. 

This poemalong with The Raggedy Man and Little Orphant Annie–counts as one of my childhood favorites.  However, Riley wrote in an earthy country dialect that is now  cumbersome to the modern reader’s eye.  So I have taken the liberty of toning down the apostrophes, some of the contractions and many of Riley’s intentional misspellings to make the poem more readable for today’s audience.

Sadly, kids today do not have any idea what fodder is, what kind of animal a guinea is, nor do they spend hours immersed in books of poems. 

Childcraft encyclopedia illustration

Illustration is from Childcraft Encyclopedia

When the Frost is on the Punkin

By James Whitcomb Riley

(gently abridged by Jacquelyn H. Burns)

Graphics Fairy old time roosterWhen the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock,

And you hear the cluck and gobble of the strutting turkey-cock,

And the clacking of the guineas and the clucking of the hens,

And the rooster’s hallelujah as he tiptoes on the fence;

O, it’s then’s the time a fellow is a-feeling at his best,

With the rising sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,

As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

 

There’s something kind of hearty-like about the atmospherebotanical pumpkin graphic from Graphics Fairy

When the heat of summer’s over and the cooling fall is here—

Of course we miss the flowers and the blossoms on the trees,

And the mumble of Graphics Fairy beesthe hummingbirds and buzzing of the bees;

But the air’s so appetizing; and the landscape through the haze

Of a crisp and sunny morning of the early autumn days

Is a picture that no painter has the coloring to mock—

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

 

 

 

The husky, rusty rustle of the tassels in the corn,pumpkin and shock of corn

And the rasping of the tangled leaves, as golden as the morn;

The stubble in the furrows, kind of lonesome-like, but still

A-preaching sermons to us of the barns they growed to fill;

The strawstack in the meadow, and the reaper in the shed;

The horses in their stalls below—the clover overhead!—

horses pulling a plowO, it sets my heart a-clicking like the ticking of a clock,

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

Then your apples all is gathered and the ones a fellow keeps

Is poured round about the cellar floor in red and yellow heaps;Graphics Fairy botanical print apples

And your cider-making’s over, and your womenfolks is through

With their mince and apple butter, and their souse and sausage, too!

I don’t know how to tell it—but if such a thing could be

As the angels wanting boarding and they’d call around on me—

I’d want to accommodate them—all the whole enduring flock—

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

vintage ad for mince pies

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Herping the Light Fantastic

 I just returned from a trip to the sky islands, isolated mountain ranges near the junction of Arizona, New Mexico and Sonora, a magic high-altitude oasis that offers world class-birding and some of the most amazing biodiversity of herpetofauna to be found.

At times I felt simply overwhelmed as I attempted to add birds and reptiles to my life list, literally not knowing whether I wanted to look up…or down.

lizard

My first Arizona herp, a plateau lizard hand-caught at the Southwestern Research Station near Portal, Arizona. A lifer.

For those of you who are not familiar with “herping” as an activity, it is similar to bird watching, aka birding.  Birders try to spot different species of birds and add them to their life list.  It is an established fact that birding field guides have a checklist in the back to this very purpose.

In herping, you are seeking to find, view, catch, photograph and then release all manner of reptiles—lizards, snakes, turtles and crocodilians and amphibians—frogs, toads and salamanders.  The individuals who participate in herping are called herpers.  The sighting of a new species is considered a “lifer,” the same as it is with birding.

This is where all similarities come to a crashing end.

Sky Islands

The Chiricahuas--sky islands--a Mecca for Birders and Herpers alike

Birders can often be found slathered with SPF-50 sunscreen and wearing their matching khaki field clothes and Tilley hats with uber-expensive binoculars secured to their chests by straps to make bearing them more, er, bearable.  They sometimes carry ridiculously long-lensed cameras on tripods, and their soft twittering voices remind you of, well, birds. 

The birder’s natural habitat includes boardwalks and nature trails.  Their preferred diet seems to be granola bars, seeds, nuts, berries and expensive bottled water.  They tippy-toe.  They titter.  And they are as pale as albinos.

Mojave rattlesnake

A venomous Mojave rattlesnake being photographed by herpers, all of whom hold at least one doctorate. Cowboys, all.

By contrast, herpers are cowboys, clad in all manner of tee shirts and jeans.   Some don snake chaps, but many simply wear sneakers.  They also strap headlamps to their baseball-style caps and carry snake hooks and tongs.  And remember this: heaven forbid that you ever mess up and call a pillowcase a pillowcase.  It is a snake bag or capture bag.

Their natural habitat—swamps, deserts, fields and forests.  A favored activity is cruising up and down roads that transect these locations.  Driving long distances at 20 mph, they can suffer from road hypnosis with their eyes glazed over in spot-a-snake mode.   If somebody yells “Snake!” (whether or not there is one) the herper will jump out of the vehicle and run around in little circles, cursing.

Tin at the Southwestern Research Station in the Coronado National Forest, Portal, New Mexico.

Herpers often flip tin looking for reptiles that use it as a "hide." Finding tin is like finding hidden gold. Near Portal, Arizona in the Coronado National Forest.

To get going in the morning, herpers might have to swig coffee and prop their eyelids open with toothpicks after long nights of road cruising, and they guzzle colas during the day to stay sharp.  And as their evening of road cruising winds down, out come all manner of alcoholic beverages.  Beer, by and large, is the preferred one, though the brand trends from year to year, as some of us are quite the afficionado.

Preferred foods include a wide variety of the bad-for-you:  jerky, pickled eggs, red sausages, chips, barbeque, hot dogs.  And sometimes, in the middle of a slow day, a herper just might sneak away for an ice cream cone.

While birders seem polite, orderly, refined and quite knowledgeable about bird calls, herpers are people of a rich and varied vocabulary.  Most know the Latin binomials for all of the species they could possibly encounter, and they know the vocalizations of the frogs and toads in their area.  They can go on and on, ad nauseum about the habitat requirements of the various herp species, and they certainly can cuss a blue streak.

Herpers checking out a glass lizard

A glass lizard poses for the paparrazi. Can you tell which ones are birders and which ones are herpers?

A birder may just tippy-toe off a trail to have a little peep at a swallow-tailed whatchmacallit, but a herper will plunge headfirst into a ditch in order to grab a retreating Lampropeltis. Sunburn, skinned knees, ant bites, groin rashes and cactus spines are de rigeur for a field herper.  In fact, coming home without such badges of bravery just might expose one as a weakling, subject to ridicule. 

Baby bird

Photo of a black-throated gray warbler fledgeling, taken by a herper with ridiculously tiny camera who happened to observe it being fed by its mother at very close range!

Return home with leeches and abrasions and you will be long-celebrated as a hero.  Pick cactus spines out of your behind for six years and are a legend.

Birders observe.  Herpers touch.  Birders enjoy decorum.  Herpers are anarchists.  Birders are tidy. Herpers surrender to entropy.

Birder=alt-folk, pop, jazz.  Herper=heavy metal, country, blues.

Birder=butterflies and rainbows.  Herper=ground-in dirt and black soot from a recent burn.

Stay tuned for my next blog with actual herping adventure in the desert Southwest!

Spider

A tarantula assumes a defensive posture while being admired by herpers near Portal, Arizona.

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Angles and Apertures: A Photo Essay of the Carolina Winter

An old baptismal pool's angular wall contrasts with the free-form flow of the spring behind it. The baptistry once was used by Beaverdam Baptist Church, the oldest brick church in Laurens County. Bricks for the construction of the church were made on-site.

Piles of cow patties highlighted against an overgrazed and muddy pasture have always defined late winter in South Carolina for me.  Like a city street photographed in black and white, there is a certain bare grittiness about it.  The pale tan of the pasture.  The dark brown of the muck where cattle push and shove for access to the hay.  The black piles of manure scattered randomly among it all.

skull of a Procyon lotor

The skull of a raccoon rests on the leaf litter

It paints a picture of a struggle for life against all that is cold and wet and meager.

Stark is the perfect word for a Carolina winter.   The very opposite of lush, it is represented by angular light that reflects off bare limbs and trunks.  There are no canopies of green leaves to diffuse the light.  It bounces off of the trees like they are pewter mirrors, dull and spare.

A fallen tree leads the eye to an opening into what you could imagine is another dimension.

I find winter a great time to walk in the woods, scouting for the upcoming turkey season or even next fall’s deer season.  I can see a long way.  Without leaves to interrupt the view, things the next ridge over define themselves. My eyes are drawn to foci that are different—an abandoned fox’s den dug into an embankment, the way a vein of boulders seem to rise from the soil in an organized fashion, the skeleton of a raccoon.  A turkey feather, splotches of owl manure like white paint on brown leaves, water seeping from rocks and the back of an old boat cushion all catch my attention.

Winter, you see, presents itself as a study of light and dark, texture, angles and apertures.

Yet among the hollows, bones and various scattered human artifacts, there lurks the promise of life.

An invasive plant, nonetheless the Eurasian water milfoil brightens up the stark March landscape.

Shoots of new growth rest just beneath the surface, and here and there they push through the leaves. Buds sit on tree limbs, ready to burst themselves open when the time is nigh.  I see things to come in the brilliant green of the invasive milfoil and in the humble yellow of a dandelion blossom.

Come, go on this walk with me.

A study in texture, a dead dogwood trunk lies partway across a path.

Breaking bleak--late winter's harbinger of spring, the dandelion.

whitetailed deer anters nailed to a barn

Stark against weathered barn wood, the bleached bone of these antlers somehow emphasizes that it is still winter.

a hole in a living tree forms aperature

A hole in a living tree forms a lens-like aperture--almost as though you could step through the looking glass.

a vine clings to an old house

A woody vine sinks its fingers into the wood of an old house.

fungi on a log

Curled edges of lacy white fungi punctuate the dark trunk of a fallen tree.

Moss on rock--vegetable meets mineral

A series of boulders on the south side of the creek look as though a giant stonemason cleaved them and left his project unfinished.

a deadfall tree with a hollow center

Aperture--a hollow tree

a series of boulders

Out of place in the Piedmont landscape, a series of boulders descend a steep hillside to the stream below

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